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A visit to Adam & Eve's happy wonderland of sex toys

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I know of a place, a wonderful, happy place, lazing on an idyllic expanse of diligently landscaped land that overlooks a lake and acres of green foliage. It's a place where you'll find lots of smiling faces, words of good cheer and playful interaction. You'll also find dildos. Lots and lots of dildos. Not to mention lingerie, anal beads, erotic videos and DVDs, and some other stuff I didn't even know existed, including the TongueJoy Vibrator, a device which, when affixed to the end of the tongue, purportedly aids in cunnilingus.

So what and where is this sex-filled Shangri-La? It's the headquarters of Adam & Eve, the nation's largest adult-oriented mail-order company, and it's located about two hours away in Orange County, NC, smack in the middle of the Bible Belt.

I spent the day there recently where I was treated to the most unusual company tour of my journalistic career, and was introduced to Phil Harvey, the man who turned a small mail-order condom business into one of the largest and most successful sex toy companies in the nation. In the process, Harvey battled and defeated a steady campaign of harassment from the religious right and the US Department of Justice, and emerged as both a First Amendment champion and a noted philanthropist in helping fight AIDS and providing birth control to developing countries.

Tucked away on an unusually lush 10-acre spread in a Hillsborough, NC, business park near Chapel Hill is Phil Harvey Enterprises (PHE), the parent company of Adam & Eve. Over the past several years PHE has grown to include Internet sales, a wholesale branch, six retail locations, including one in Charlotte, and "Temptation Parties," where, instead of plastic food containers, ladies get together and select from an array of X-rated videos, lingerie, vibrators and other adult merchandise. Last year, 1.5 million customers bought $66 million worth of Adam & Eve merchandise. Total, PHE earned around $90 million. I guess the adage is true: sex does sell.

Shortly after I arrive at PHE, a three-story brick and glass building and warehouse complex, I'm greeted by public relations director Katy Zvolerin, a tall, attractive 37-year-old brunette who's been working at Adam & Eve for a decade. For her first three years of employment, Zvolerin wrote copy for the catalogues and video boxes. "When I tell people where I work I get a lot of giggles and "Ooh, what's that like?'" Zvolerin says. "I've pretty much seen everything over the past decade, although every now and then something comes along that still surprises me."

As Zvolerin escorts me down the hall, I note how PHE looks like any other office building: lots of gray cubicles, desks cluttered with papers, employees hunched before computers.

"It's like you're at IBM, except for all the pictures of naked people," Zvolerin says. Yes, there is that. Scattered among all the typical bulletin board announcements, memos and charts are pictures of busty women in various stages of undress, striking sexy poses and demonstrating some of the company's many products. Must be great for morale, at least for the male employees, although I imagine a tad distracting.

We turn the corner and make our way through the call center, where dozens of employees with phone headsets are taking orders. I overhear one of the workers explaining the many benefits of the "liberator ramp and wedge combo," essentially a big pillow designed to maximize sexual positions.

"Yes, sir, it's great for both trying out new positions and improving old ones, and it comes with a washable, stain-resistant nylon and velour cover, plus a 44-page manual," she says, as if explaining the merits of a new car. Hmm, sounds pretty cool, I think, but a 44-page manual! I'd be too worn out from all the reading for any hanky panky.

Dominating one wall in the call center is a big glass display case showcasing hundreds of items -- dildos and vibrators of varying sizes and colors, cock rings, assorted lubes and enhancement creams, edible undies, bondage gear and even a "pecker cupcake pan." "The [display] case is to help the call center workers become familiar with all our different products," explains Zvolerin.

Next, I'm led to the company's massive 40,000-square-foot warehouse, where more than 4,000 different sex toys and 2,500 video titles are stored. Thousands upon thousands of boxes of product are stacked onto pallets, which are in turn stacked four high along dozens of towering steel cages. It's from here that orders are pulled, packaged and placed onto a conveyor belt, where they're then separated by zip code. A figure scribbled on a chalkboard indicates the number of packages scheduled to be shipped out that day: 10,400. The average price of each order is $50. On average, Adam & Eve ships out more than 15,000 packages a day, but sales typically drop during the summer. "We figure it's because kids are home from school," Zvolerin says.

Finally, I'm introduced to Harvey, the man at the helm of this adult playhouse. I don't know what I was expecting -- certainly not some buff stud or even Hugh Hefner -- but I admit I was surprised to see a pale, balding, short man with a slight build who speaks in a flat, almost monotone voice. He seems more like an erudite accountant or high school math teacher than the impresario of his own massive sex empire. Much like the rest of the building, his desk and office walls are littered with line graphs, bar diagrams and memos, which are oddly juxtaposed with pictures of naked women.

Harvey was born in Illinois 66 years ago. Although he came of age during the sex, drugs and idealism of the 60s, it was "from a distance," he says. After Harvey graduated from Harvard in 1960, he enrolled in the Peace Corps, but was drafted instead, and served a two-year stint in the Army. Still in his early 20s, Harvey then joined the charity CARE, and traveled to India where he spent five years supervising the pre-school feeding program.

"For most of the 60s I was in India," Harvey says from behind his desk, his thick, black-framed glasses perched atop his head. "We imported all the Beatles' songs, and certainly the sexual revolution was taking place in cities like Bombay and New Delhi, but mostly we just read about it.

"Kennedy had said "Ask what you can do for your country,'" he continues. "It was part of the spirit of the times, and I was looking to go out in the world and be useful. But I also wanted to live and work in a part of the world that was completely different from what I knew, to find out what other human beings were made of."

During his time in India, Harvey became frustrated with how ineffective many of the feeding programs were, and realized that if the industrial world really wanted to help countries like India, voluntary family planning was the way to do it. With that goal in mind, he returned to the US in 1969, and enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill where he earned a masters degree in family planning administration. During this time he met Dr. Tim Black, who shared his vision of making contraception available on a mass scale in the Third World. Black helped Harvey with his post-graduate thesis project, which was concerned with the "non-medical distribution of contraceptives" (i.e., mail-order condoms). At the time, sending condoms through the mail was illegal due to the Comstock Law, which classified them as obscene. Nonetheless, Harvey and Black decided to forge ahead.

"We did it under the aegis of a non-profit corporation," Harvey explains. "But as the orders started rolling in, we could see that it contained the seeds of what might be a profitable business. So we incorporated into a regular commercial company."

This all eventually led to the establish-ment of the family planning and AIDS prevention organization DKT International, a non-profit based in Washington, DC, that's still headed by Harvey, offering contraceptive protection to 5.7 million couples in 2000, the last year for which they have complete figures.

Meanwhile, the condom mail-order business continued to grow, and the Adam & Eve mail order catalogue was born in 1972. "It evolved from expressed demand," Harvey says. "We experimented with all kinds of products -- digital clocks, ship building kits, leisure wear -- but it soon became obvious that anytime we offered products that had an erotic appeal, sales jumped way up."

Adam & Eve (Neither Harvey nor Black can recall how the name came about) continued to boom throughout the 70s and 80s. In May of 1986, however, during the heyday of the conservative Reagan administration, the company hit a major speedbump. Thirty-seven federal agents with guns on their hips raided the North Carolina headquarters, then located in Carrboro, and detained, searched, and subpoenaed 118 employees.

"The feds had an agenda," Harvey says. "Once Ed Meese took over as Attorney General they wanted to eliminate all sexual material from American culture. They hired what I would call "True Believers,' and these religious crusaders simply believed sex was evil and bad and they set out to eliminate anything they deemed obscene."

Meese and his crew had already driven out of business at least seven other mail order companies that distributed erotic material by using multi-jurisdictional laws, in which they threatened prosecution in several different states. "It was an extremely effective tactic," Harvey says. "It would cost these companies millions of dollars to defend themselves against these different lawsuits. The feds were blatant about it. They made it clear they were out to break us."

However, when the feds descended upon Adam & Eve, Harvey fought back. He contended that the feds were illegally using the law to shut down presumptively protected speech, which he argued was un-Constitutional and in violation of the First Amendment. What ensued was an eight-year legal battle, during which time Harvey sued the Department of Justice, accusing the government of abusing its power by using the multi-jurisdictional approach to prosecute obscenity cases. The case finally ended in 1994 when Harvey agreed to drop the civil suit and pleaded guilty to one charge of violating a postal regulation. (Harvey wrote a book about the debacle called The Government Vs. Erotica.)

It's noteworthy that Adam & Eve experienced some of its most dramatic growth during its protracted legal battle. In 1994, having outgrown his old location in Carrboro, Harvey decided to move the company to the Orange County seat of Hillsborough, but not without yet another fight.

"A group of ministers, most not even from Hillsborough, launched this tremendous opposition, and they had several town meetings and created all kinds of controversy," Harvey says. "We had a few knockdown drag-out altercations, but there was no legal way they could prevent us from putting up this building.

"This is a very good example of how communities and counties can be so vastly different even when they're next door to each other," Harvey continues. "NC is not homogeneous in any way. Chapel Hill is one of the most liberal communities in the US in terms of acceptance of gays and tolerance of alternative lifestyles, whereas nearby Alamance County is almost the exact opposite."

I ask him if he's run into any more opposition in recent years with a conservative Republican once again in the White House.

"The climate has changed," he says. "Ashcroft has certainly demonstrated his willingness to put aside the war on terror and prosecute people like those folks in Oakland who are in a Cannabis Cooperative and are doing nothing but growing medical marijuana for sick people," he says. "He's even using FBI resources to go after people who sell paraphernalia. They put Chong (of Cheech and Chong) in jail for selling pipes, for God's sakes."

Despite the political climate, Harvey says that most of the controversy and opposition has died down. In fact, in Orange County, Adam & Eve is now considered a great corporate citizen. "The employees of this company are very active in community service and charity work," Harvey says. "A very significant portion of the people who live in this area have worked for us at one time or another. So we have wonderful PR just from former employees."

Harvey says there is also a unique esprit de corps among Adam & Eve's 350 or so employees. "We all share what I call the "What do you tell your mother' syndrome. That's something everyone here has to deal with in their own way. We understand what everyone else is going through; dealing with the same issues makes us a little more cohesive."

And I'll be darned if he isn't right. During my first pass through the building, I figured I must have encountered some unusually chipper and friendly folks by chance. But after my interview with Harvey, Zvolerin escorts me through the rest of the building, and it was more of the same -- whether they were marketing personnel, website designers, call center employees or warehouse workers, everyone seemed remarkably happy and convivial. Moreover, I noticed that the mostly 20-something work force was uncannily and equally divided among blacks and whites and men and women, and there was an unmistakable feeling of community and openness. It was like one big, happy, sex toy-selling melting pot.

With my day at Adam & Eve unfortunately drawing to an end, Harvey escorts me outside to my car. He walks a little slumped over, wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect his balding head from the afternoon sun, and starts talking about how his company has been important in "raising the standards for sexually explicit materials." He mentions this while displaying for the first time that day what can almost be described as emotion. "Every product we sell is carefully reviewed by sex therapists, educators and psychologists and we eliminate anything that might be harmful or misleading. We're all about keeping things "sex positive.'" And with that, the most unlikely spokesperson for sex since Dr. Ruth bids me adieu and shuffles back inside his adult toy utopian empire. I cast longing glances in my rearview mirror as I sadly drive away, back to the real world.

Contact Sam Boykin at [email protected].


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